Thursday 23 February 2012

Some Thoughts on the Relevance (to me) of 5e

Information about 5e has been slowly....oh so slowly....trickling in.  

Or “D&D Next” as WotC is calling it, presumably hoping that we will be playing it next, and also to minimize that this is yet another edition in a line following from 3e, 3.5e, 4e, 4e Essentials, and now 5e.  There is are thriving communities devoted to “D&D Previous”, be they Rules Compendium, Basic, White Box, Little Brown Books, 1e, 2e, or 3e…all in the form of the original prints or in the form of simulacrums.   The aspiration to make a “Rosetta Stone” edition is understandable.  That’s a lot of lost market share to tap into.

But, especially in light of the time (now years) spent working my own system into a presentable game, this all begs the question:  Will 5e be relevant to me?

There are a couple of questions that need to be answered in order to know:

First, is this going to be an OGL game?

Second, is this game going to offer a significant improvement over what I am playing?

As to the first question, 5e is not WotC’s first attempt to make a “lingua franca” of role-playing.  When 3e was announced, one of its important building blocks was the OGL.  The OGL made it possible for other designers, and other game companies, to feed into the same system, thus presumably driving sales of the D&D core books and other WotC products.

Sadly, in this writer’s opinion, WotC didn’t learn the lesson of the OGL.  IMHO, the OGL did its job initially, and, as long as WotC followed that initial plan, the OGL drove folks to buy their products.  I mean, there might be (for example) some really cool competing psionics systems, but unless they were Open Gaming Content, you were limited in how you used them.  So, the WotC psionics system predominated.  But, if you hated WotC psionics, there were other systems you could use without abandoning 3e altogether.  3e was, one might easily argue, the most commercially successful D&D edition since 1e.  Perhaps of all time.

The OGL also allowed WotC to build an edition of D&D that took advantage of the best OGC available.  Rather than coming up with what they did for 4e – and, let’s face it, design decisions should not be made on the basis of trying to limit applicability of the OGL in favour of a restrictive GSL – streamlining 3e’s clunky bits, making combat go faster, and divorcing the system from the necessity of the grid.  But as we all know, that’s not what happened.

Paizo has, IMHO, learned the lesson of the OGL that WotC first promoted, and later failed to retain.  Paizo, like many smaller OSR companies, has been extremely generous with its OGC, and, partially as a result, levered itself into a real contender for the 800 lb. gorilla in the room.  You don’t have to play Pathfinder as written; you can publish your house rules on the web for easy access for your home group, or so that you can play via forums or Skype with people across the globe.

Can “D&D Next” really act as a “Rosetta Stone” without this same flexibility?  I think not.  And I don’t think a generous “fan policy” is enough – that a company can make you pull your documentation (possibly effectively ending your campaign) in order to sell “D&D Next.5” or “D&D Nexter” simply will not cut it.  You are far better off playing Pathfinder, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, or any of a number of generously licensed (and often free) games.

Which brings us to the second question:  Is 5e going to be a significant improvement over what I’m playing now?

Based on what I’m reading thus far, the Magic Eightball reads “Outlook Doubtful”.  But there is no real way to know.  Most of what we have is hype backed by no substance at all, and a lot of questions from the designers.  The WotC playtesting is very different, in terms of transparency, than that done by other companies, such as Goodman Games and Paizo.

Yet, many folks in the Internet gaming community seem to believe relevancy, or interest, is a default position.  Let me be clear where I stand here:  My default position on any product, whether a television or a personal computing device, or a game system is “Not Interested”.  If a gaming company wants my money, they must make me change my position by actual information. 

Simply saying “Trust us; we know what’s fun!” isn’t enough.  It wasn’t enough with 4e.  It is not enough with 5e.  We need to not only know what you hope to do, but also how you hope to do it.

In conclusion, WotC deserves real kudos for re-releasing the core 1e books, and I hope to see more early era D&D released by them.  Some of the earlier modules, at the very least, would be very relevant to me.  The good words I am hearing about Barrowmaze are relevant to me.  The chance to playtest the Beta version of Goodman Games’ DCC RPG without signing away all rights to any comment I might make is relevant to me.

The relative Cone of Silence around 5e makes it less relevant.  The Cone of Silence around what the licensing structure will be makes it even less so.  It is hard not to be cautiously optimistic – and I am – but, right now, this is something that I’ll wait to read reviews on from those whose judgement I trust.

How about you?

Wednesday 15 February 2012

What Am I Good At?

Largely for my own amusement, I have worked out an alternate system for AD&D proficiencies, based largely on Goodman Games DCC RPG rules.  It allows for both randomness and choice, with the hopes of allowing both customization and a greater difference among characters.  No challenge to Goodman Games IP is intended.

What Am I Good At?

An Alternative Proficiency System for 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Every class has tasks that it is good at, as indicated (or implied) in the character class description.  Thus, fighters know about the care and maintenance of armour and weapons, a magic-user understands arcana, a cleric is knowledgeable about religion, and so on.

In addition, every character gets one roll on the Secondary Skill table.  This indicates the character’s background prior to adventuring.  In addition, the character gets to choose three Proficiencies from the following list.  In some cases, depending upon the character’s class and or race, he can choose from additional options as follows:

If the character has any abilities that rely on percentile rolls (such as a thief’s chance to hide in shadows or a gnome’s chance to detect unsafe walls, ceilings, or floors), a Proficiency  can be spent to give this ability a +5% bonus.  A single-classed fighter, and only a single-classed fighter, can spend a Proficiency to specialize with a weapon, or to double-specialize in a weapon the fighter has already specialized in.  (This replaces the use of weapon proficiency slots for specialization.)

Otherwise, a Proficiency grants a +2 bonus to a related skill check, using the following system.

If a character’s background supports his know­ing such a skill, the character may attempt a skill check.   If a character’s background does not support a skill use, the character is not familiar with the activ­ity and cannot attempt to use the skill.  If there is ambiguity – for example, the character may have used the skill somewhat but not regularly – the character may make a check with a -4 penalty.   Finally, if the skill is something that any adult could have a reasonable chance of attempting, then any character can make a check.

Ability Score
Skill Check Modifier
+5 (+10)*
+6 (+11)*
+7 (+12)*
+8 (+13)*
+9 (+14)*
+10 (+15)*
+11 (+16)*
* Numbers in parenthesis apply to Strength scores only
Making a Skill Check

A skill check is made by rolling 1d20, adding the appropriate ability score modifier, and comparing the result to the DC for the chal­lenge.  If the roll beats the challenge, the skill check succeeds.  Otherwise, it fails.

Some tasks are harder than others and Difficulty Class (DC) allows us to gauge this.

·         DC 5 tasks are child’s play.  Typically, these minor chal­lenges aren’t rolled unless there is a consequence for failure.  Example:  walking on a four-foot-wide castle wall requires no check, but walking a four-foot-wide bridge across a yawning chasm does, as there is a sig­nificant consequence to failure for this easy task.

·         DC 10 tasks are difficult.  The weak and un­skilled could not achieve these tasks.  If a character has the Alertness Proficiency, he can attempt a DC 10 task (using his Wisdom skill modifier) to negate surprise for himself only.  A character can attempt a DC 10 task to gain a +2 combat advantage (see the Advanced Combat Rules pdf).
·         DC 20 tasks are feats of derring-do. It takes someone special to ac­complish these tasks.  Examples: leaping the gap between two city roofs, hurling a log at an oncom­ing bear, or grabbing a pouch lashed to the saddle of a gallop­ing stallion.   If a character has the Alertness Proficiency, he can attempt a DC 20 task (using his Wisdom skill modifier) to negate surprise for himself and his companions.  A character can attempt a DC 20 task to gain a +4 combat advantage (see the Advanced Combat Rules pdf).

·         DC 30 tasks are hero’s work.   Only the most super-human charac­ters attempt and succeed at these tasks.  A character can attempt a DC 30 task to gain a +6 combat advantage (see the Advanced Combat Rules pdf).

Sometimes two charac­ters attempt opposite actions.  In this case, roll a skill check for both parties.  The higher roll wins.

In some cases, more than one check can be made to represent a longer contest, like a game of chess.  The winner is the one who reaches either (1) a preset number of successes first, or (2) one character “pulls ahead” of the other(s) by a preset number of successes.

Skill checks are designed for use when a system of abstract rules is nec­essary to adjudicate a situation.  A skill check is only made when practical descriptions by the players will not suffice.

List of Proficiencies

Animal Handling
Charioteer Driving
Combat Manoeuvre***
Court Manners
Craft (Any, Choose Specific Craft)
Direction Sense
Fungus Identification
Knowledge (Any, Choose Specific Subject)
Musical Instrument (Any, Choose Instrument)
Perform (Any, Choose One Performance Type)
Profession (Any, Choose Specific Profession)
Riding (Any, Choose Mount Type)
Rope Use
Saving Throw Bonus (Choose One)****
Sense Motive
Sound Imitation
Tea Ceremony*
Two-Weapon Fighting**
Weapon Skill (Any, Choose One Weapon Skill Group)
Weather Sense
Wilderness Lore (Choose Environment)

* This Proficiency is limited to Oriental characters, unless DM approval is granted for a specific exemption.
** This Proficiency reduces the normal penalty by 2 each time it is selected, but cannot result in a bonus.
*** This Proficiency can only be selected by a fighter or a member of a fighter subclass.  This Proficiency reduces the normal penalty for a manoeuvre by 2 each time that it is selected, but cannot result in a bonus.
**** The character gains a +1 bonus to saving throws made in one particular saving throw category.
***** The character does not gain the same information that a ranger would, but gets instead the most basic information available from a set of tracks.

In addition, a character can choose from anything the player can think of, subject to the DM’s approval.

Improving Proficiencies
Using this system, a single-class character gains a new Proficiency with every character class level.  A multi-class character gains a new Proficiency when all classes have gained a new class level.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Computer and Table Top Games

Do you have players who are coming to the hobby from computer games?  Have they acquired bad habits or strange expectations about how the game world will work?  Do they imagine that foes will run endlessly upon their spears, or that they will respawn, or that the game is all about combat? 

When role-playing games first appeared, they were something new, and required serious explanation as to what they were, and how they were played.  Now, nearly everyone has either played – or at least heard of – a computer “role-playing game”, and the term needs a little less explanation.  If you come to tabletop (or pen-and-paper) role-playing from a computer game background, however, there are some differences you should be aware of:

1.    In a computer game, you can see the characters, the setting, and the opponents on the screen.  In a pen-and-paper game, you must see them in your imagination.  In some cases, the Game Master may provide visual representations – drawings, photographs, and even miniature figures – to help you imagine the scene.

2.    In a computer game, the game designers often determine the characteristics of the character who acts as your point-of-view throughout the game.  In a tabletop game, the system may place limitations on the type of character you can create, and there may be random elements (most commonly die rolls) during the process, but it is largely incumbent upon each player to determine who and what his or her character will be.

3.    Likewise, in a computer game, there is often a predetermined limitation to the number of players who can play a given game at a time.  This is not true for a tabletop game, although a massive-multiplayer online computer rpg (mmorg) will handle far more characters than even an above-average Game Master is capable of dealing with!

4.    A computer game often has a predetermined storyline, with cut scenes that allow no player input.  Even a computer game that allows for multiple side quests is limited to handling adventures that have been fully thought out by the designer prior to play.  A pen-and-paper game generally doesn’t have a predetermined storyline, so that players have the ability to follow whatever interests them within the setting.

5.    Likewise, a computer game only allows players to interact with the setting in ways that have been thought of by the designer prior to play.  Thus, characters cannot simply break into and steal a car to drive away from zombie-infested Quiet Knoll unless that was an action the game writer predetermined was possible.  This is not true in a tabletop game, where the Game Master is capable of interacting directly with the players in real time.  In a tabletop game, when you try to do something unexpected, the Game Master simply determines how to express your attempt in game terms – and you roll the dice.

6.    Computer games can train players to have bad habits in tabletop games.  For example, in a computer game, enemies might be defeated through using the same tactics repeatedly, whereas in a tabletop game, the same enemies will learn from past defeats and change their tactics.  They will begin to learn what to expect, and devise ways to take advantage of it.  Similarly, computer games tend to encourage “button mashing” (following specific formulaic strategies) over creativity in combat…this is part of “learning the game”, and defeating important enemies requires it.  Computer games encourage looking for “what we’re supposed to do” and passivity toward shaping the game.  Good tabletop games encourage exactly the opposite of this approach.

7.    Finally, in a pen-and-paper game, events with multiple potential outcomes are determined by some method of selection – most frequently by generating a random number using dice.  Computer games use randomness as well, although in this case the randomness is hidden within the computer program.  A computer game can also determine among multiple outcomes by how well the player handles the controls – if you have ever had the screen point of view change so that your attempt to run away from a dinosaur suddenly changes to running towards the beast, you know what I mean.  In a tabletop game, knowing the ruleset helps you avoid running into a monster you are trying to avoid, too.  In both computer and tabletop role-playing games, the goals are often the same, but the means of achieving those goals – and the limitations toward achieving them – are different.